Restaurant Reviews

Miami Dining 2009: Online for a better future

At last year's end, this page trumpeted the arrival of Miami to the big league of American food cities. As soon as we joined that elite club, however, the economic crash hit home and lavish restaurant budgets dried faster than pig belly in a supercollider-dehydrating machine.

While still dizzy with recession talk, we suddenly found ourselves in a tizzy over Mario Batali dropping F-bombs in front of the royal couple from Spain — and a stunned crowd — at the 2009 South Beach Wine & Food Festival dinner honoring the cuisine and wines of that country. Despite the faux pas, the SBWFF once again drew big names and big crowds. Can it top the Batali brouhaha in 2010? Best hope would be for Wanda Sykes to host an Italian fete honoring the pope.

Here is a glimpse at some of the rest of the year that was:

Gone and for the Most Part Forgotten: While most restaurateurs have taken some sort of financial hit, there hardly appeared to be more casualties this year than any other. Brosia, Cacao, North One 10, Au Pied de Cochon, Table 8, and Tuscan Steak were the most notable losses, the last three leading a lengthy list of South Beach failures — especially among new restaurants. Ahnvee, Apple Restaurant and Lounge, Hot Tuna, Hed Kandi Lounge, I Corsini, and Ratatouille Bistro each debuted in 2009. All are gone. So are veteran SoBe establishments El Viajante Segundo and Sushi Siam. Victims elsewhere included Badrutt's Place, Christabelle's Quarter, La Gastronomia, La Paloma, Macabi Steakhouse and Bar, Picnic's, Plein Sud, and Two Chefs Too.

The Replacements: Some restaurants we think of as having opened in the past year actually debuted in December 2008 — such as Area 31, Meat Market, Scarpetta, and Sra. Martinez. Still, those are impressive and relatively recent additions. Others that have come along since: Asia de Cuba, Bulldog Barbecue, Caviar Kaspia, Cape Cod Room, Charlotte Bistro, Eos at the Viceroy, Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau, Mr. Chow and Solea at the W, Mr. Yum Asian Cuisine, Naoe, Petit Rouge, Prelude by Barton G., Talavera Cocina Mexicana, Urbanite Bistro, and Wok Town. Plus...

Burger Bashed and Steaked Out: We probably didn't need more hamburger places, but that didn't stop Burger & Beer Joint from becoming one of the season's biggest hits. Burger Bar at Bourbon Steak, 8-oz. Burger Bar, Clarke's, Kingdom, and the other hamburger hangouts in town had strong years too; Five Guys and Fatburger kept expanding, and Shake Shack will shake things up on Lincoln Road next summer.

On the contemporary steak house scene, the year began with a new Red the Steakhouse and BLT and is ending with a new STK in the Gansevoort Hotel almost set to debut — almost set, in fact, since sometime around the Eisenhower administration. The one we're looking forward to most will be Steakhouse the LAST.

Invasion of the Pizzas: Those in the mood for wood-oven pizza had their options widely increased with the addition of Casale, Joey's (December '08), Mai Tardi, PizzaVolante, Sosta, and Racks Italian Bistro and Market. Yet for all the pizza taste-offs and mozzarella bar mumbo-jumbo, most of these scrumptious, thin-crusted pies taste pretty similar to one another.

Our Infatuation With Wine Bars Seems to Have Waned: It's been replaced with a fixation on cocktails concocted by master mixologists and nitrous-oxide ninjas.

Chef-Go-Round: Dewey LoSasso packed up his North One 10 and seized the helm of the rejuvenated Forge, Mark Militello left 1 Bleu and moseyed over to the Office in Delray, and Micah Edelstein of Top Chef notoriety supplanted Michael Jacobs at Grass. Arturo Artilles ambled from broken Brosia to Solea in the W South Beach, where he worked under Michael Gilligan, who became W's executive chef after leaving Atrio/Level 25 at the Conrad Hotel. Alas, Artilles exited Solea sooner rather than later, replaced by Marc Vidal, who had done so fine at Por Fin. Michelle Bernstein added the Omphoy in Palm Beach, Doug Rodriguez doubled his pleasure with D. Rodriguez Cuba at Hotel Astor, and Jonathan Eismann quadrupled his on the western fringe of the Design District by introducing PizzaVolante, Q, and Fin within blocks of Pacific Time.

Michael Schwartz didn't do much except get more famous.

How does management at Canyon Ranch stay so slim? Probably from the angst of constantly changing chefs; Elizabeth Barlow is the latest. Gerdy Rodriguez, the Cecil B. DeMille of Miami toques, re-emerged from Karu & Y to take on yet another venture of massive scope, the downtown restaurant/club MIA at Biscayne.

Two chefs who have stayed put for many years: Pascal Oudin of Pascal's on Ponce and Philippe Ruiz of Palme d'Or. Could this be why these restaurants remain two of our very finest? Palme d'Or, incidentally, copped the Triple Crown of Miami Zagat ratings at year's end — best décor, service, and food.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Kobe Club, the Forge, and Abokado closed shop for a while and then eventually reopened. That's one way to squeeze in a vacation. Manny's Steakhouse downtown became Miami's Chophouse; AltaMar on Lincoln Road is set to move next door to an expanded space, where it will become Altamare; and Luna Café on Biscayne Boulevard became L'Artista Restaurant — and then months later returned to being Luna Café. To all of which we say: Hey, make up your minds already!

The Second City: Miami remains a magnet for second outposts by brand name chefs and restaurateurs. Scott Conant, Michael Mina, Nobu Matsuhisa, Alfred Portale, Laurent Tourondel, and Alan Yau are just a few of those who've brainstormed their way here — while leaving their hearts in the cities of their flagship restaurants. The culinary carpetbagging slowed to a trickle yet still brought one of the very best new restaurants (Michael Psilakis's Eos) and one of the, um, not very best (Mr. Chow). Speaking of which...

Chow Down: Last year, it was Philippe Chow; this year Mr. Chow. Even if they weren't fighting among themselves, we're still pretty certain this would be two more Chows than any city really needs.

Star Van Aken 2: The Next Generation: Last year, we noted the stagnant nature of restaurant action in Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne, South Miami, and the once proud Coral Gables. Not much has changed for the first three hoods, but Charlotte Bistro, Le Provençal, Talavera Cocina Mexicana, and the imminent return of Norman Van Aken to his old stomping grounds might be enough to get the Gables rollicking once again. Norman's 180, the most anticipated opening of 2010, will feature Van Aken working in the kitchen with son Justin — maybe the surest way to guarantee the perpetuation of a vibrant dining scene.

Band of Bloggers: Before you can perpetuate a vibrant scene, you have to create one, and the maturation of our online food community will almost certainly bring that about sooner rather than later. Just a few years ago, the collective public commentary about Miami's restaurants consisted of a couple of critics and a handful of Chowhounders. Local food blogs have since multiplied faster than annoying Food Network personalities, and national sites such as Eater, Thrillist, Urban Daddy, and Yelp have taken Miami into their fold. (Short Order also came of age this year, which we like to think of as a positive development too.) It can be argued that the increased sharing of local information on the web, along with the attendant linkage to national sites — the socializing of the food media in general — has already helped usher in a couple of culinary trends that have long been an integral fixture of other American cities: gastro trucks and underground dinners. In fact, blogs just might end up being the cogs that finally gear us toward getting the fish houses, cheese shops, meat markets, green grocers, bakeries, diners, and all the other missing pieces we have been patiently waiting for.

So we close our wrapup with a bright prognosis for 2010 and beyond: It takes a village to raise a food scene, and Miami finally has one.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein